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10 February 1999

Life in this celebrity press corps: Defining defamation down

Synopsis: Why won’t the press corps report what Tripp said? They’ve got a whole new idea of a “smear.”

I Still Believe
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 3/18/98

Democrats, say something, please
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 3/18/98

History’s Verdict
Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 3/20/98

Amazing, isn’t it, the situation that obtains concerning poor sainted Kathleen Willey? At least three current news stories directly turn upon her credibility. And her March 1998 charge that Clinton assaulted her--widely supported by the press at the time--still plays an active role in the public debate, and forms for many people a lingering proof that Paula Jones’ accusations must be true.

One would think, then, that it would be major news, the things that Linda Tripp said. Willey’s charges against Clinton were directly contradicted by Linda Tripp, her former co-worker and friend, in detailed, sworn testimony before the grand jury, released on October 2. As much as the press corps loves the truth--and as much as the press corps just hates all lying!--one would think the press would air this charge, so Willey’s credibility could be fully reviewed in the light of all relevant facts.

But the press corps has locked Tripp’s statement away since it was released by Ken Starr in October. The public has essentially never been told about the striking things Linda Tripp said. As Julie Steele faces charges for contradicting Willey, no one reports that Tripp contradicted her too. Starr may as well have just kept Tripp’s account under seal. The press corps simply will not report it.

The explanation for this situation almost surely involves the press corps’ reconstruction of “smearing.” In the course of the past year, the pundits and poobahs have boldly redefined that noble old term of art. Because it is press corps dogma to assume Clinton’s Vile, the press corps must also put faith in accusers. Therefore, any contradiction of any accuser--any suggestion that an accuser speaks falsely--is written off as another smear. And the press corps cowers, afraid to report facts--afraid to report the things Linda Tripp said--because, by the disgraceful new rules that they have written, anyone who dared to do such a thing would immediately be accused of new smears

We have reported before the embarrassing way the scribes supported Willey last March (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98). There was no way on earth they could possibly know whether or not Willey’s accusations were true. But pundits elbowed one another aside, each striving to say, in the silliest way, that what Willey said couldn’t be false.

In the course of this embarrassing spectacle, the press corps redefined defamation. Since we now would assume that accusers spoke true, we’d also assume that denials were false. And so any denial of what Willey said could quickly be written off as a “smear.”

Michael Kelly (who else?) was first from the gate, accusing “the president’s henchmen and henchwomen” of “smearing” Willey in his column of March 18 (Willey appeared on Sixty Minutes on Sunday evening, March 15). We hate to say it, but even Walter Shapiro said the same thing the very same day:

SHAPIRO: We both know that Willey was a highly credible witness in her...appearance on 60 Minutes. This, of course, has not prevented the White House from trying to smear her...

There was Charles Krauthammer, two days later:

KRAUTHAMMER: Willey--loyal Democrat, party contributor and volunteer, friend of the president--is the last person that Hillary Clinton can point to as a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy. So what does the Clinton smear machine do? Portray her as a gold digger. She sought a book deal.

The fact that Willey had sought a book deal didn’t change Krauthammer’s instant assessment. And the notion of contradiction-as-automatic-smear has lingered throughout scandal coverage.

To state the obvious: the three writers could not know, in the middle of March, whether Willey had spoken the truth. Indeed, Shapiro stated he was “95% convinced” that “Willey’s charges are true.” If he wasn’t certain that what she was saying was true, then he could hardly be certain that White House statements were “smears.” But the new concepts were already settling hard into place. Since accusers were automatically presumed to be true, any statement to the contrary was smearing.

Well, substantial evidence has surfaced suggesting that Willey may not have been truthful in March. According to Tripp, Willey had an eagerly sought, consensual encounter, which she described with delight at the time. Linda Tripp’s detailed testimony directly contradicts the account of the encounter that Kathleen Willey gave. Julie Steele is not the only former friend who swears that Faire Willey tells it false.

We state again what we have stated before: we have no way of knowing what may have happened between Clinton and Willey in the Oval Office. We weren’t hanging out in the Oval that day, so there’s no way that we can be sure.

But we do know this: when the press corps gives coverage to serious accusations, it must also tell readers when accusations are challenged. If the pundits intend to do the work of real scribes, they must report the things Linda Tripp said.

We repeat: The following stories turn in large part on assessment of Willey’s credibility:

  1. The perjury charge against Julie Hiatt Steele
  2. The investigation of Nathan Landow
  3. The assertion that Willey has been threatened by “secret police”
  4. The assertion that Willey was groped in the Oval Office
These stories all turn on Willey’s credibility. How can the press corps keep covering these stories, without reporting what Linda Tripp said?